Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » The Defining Challenge of our Time

FFF Articles

The Defining Challenge of our Time


Why Liberty — Your Life, Your Choices, Your Future edited by Tom G. Palmer (Jameson Books 2013) 116 pages.

With this short, easily read, yet intellectually powerful book, Tom Palmer continues his work of making libertarianism the philosophy that will appeal to and animate young people around the globe. While the arguments for vastly downsizing our enormous, meddlesome, and dangerous government are just as applicable to mature people as to younger ones, Palmer wisely crafts the book (a joint effort of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and Students for Liberty) for maximum traction with the generation that must either begin to ratchet down the mega-state or else watch it grow like a malignant tumor.

The so-called progressives want to increase the power of government across the board. What stands in their way is the residual belief among the populace that liberty is good and should not be sacrificed. Palmer and his writers seek to strengthen and spread that belief. They do a superb job. (Alas, there isn’t space here to do justice to all of the contributions.)

Palmer’s lead essay, “Why Be Libertarian?” explains the common ground between libertarianism and the rules most people instinctively follow in their everyday lives. Acting like a libertarian, he writes, means “You don’t hit other people when their behavior displeases you. You don’t take their stuff. You don’t lie to them or trick them…. You respect other people. You respect their rights. You might sometimes feel like smacking someone in the face for saying something offensive, but your better judgment prevails and you walk away or answer words with words. You’re a civilized person.”

Libertarianism simply means extending those decent, nonaggressive instincts most of us follow individually to the level of government. If you shouldn’t use force or fraud, neither should those who run the government.

But isn’t government different? Haven’t people consented to government coercion because “the common good” often requires it?

That belief has been drummed into people almost everywhere. Palmer proceeds to tear it apart.

The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau is probably the best-known advocate of the rightness of government coercion. Even if few people have actually read his book The Social Contract, most have absorbed its central argument that there exists a “general will” regarding the good of society, so when government officials compel us to go along with whatever they claim to be the general will, they are just “forcing us to be free.” Palmer counters that there never has been a “general will” in any society and the claim that there is by Rousseau and many philosophers since is nothing but a deception to enable some people to control others.

The tripod

Next, well-known TV personality John Stossel contributes an essay cleverly entitled “There Ought Not to Be a Law.” Stossel observes that both left-wingers and right-wingers think they can improve on society in various ways. Their ends may be laudable, but both sides err in their choice of means when they turn to government, with its tools of coercion, rather than peaceful, voluntary approaches.

If you think, e.g., that drug use is bad, don’t seek laws forbidding it, but instead use your freedom to find the best ways of persuading people that they’d be better off not using drugs. Or if you think that poor people need better medical care, don’t lobby for a law that has government take over everyone’s care, but instead use your freedom to target voluntary assistance to those who need it.

Stossel sums this up with a line all readers should easily remember: “There is nothing government can do that we cannot do better as free individuals.”

Libertarians are part of the “extreme Right” in American politics — correct? No, says Clark Ruper in an essay challenging the conventional left-to-right spectrum. Libertarians, he argues, are radical centrists. They are radical because libertarian analysis goes to the root of issues, and centrist because, he writes “we project our ideas outward and inform political parties and ideologies across the spectrum.” How so?

Ruper observes that modern freedoms which almost everyone favors exist only because of principled opposition by libertarians (formerly known as classical liberals, or just liberals) to laws and social norms that gave to the few power over the many. For example, the separation of church and state, legal protection for free speech, and more all were triumphs of libertarianism. (One more example Ruper might have included was the ending of military conscription.) So is libertarianism just a “fringe” political movement? Hardly. Life today would be much less pleasant if it hadn’t been for those “radical centrists” in the past.

Palmer follows with an essay that expands on the history of libertarian thought — especially how it undermined the old medieval social forms that left the individual at the mercy of “superiors” in the nobility and clergy. He points out that during the Middle Ages, cities were the oases for people who sought liberty rather than the oppressive feudal order in the countryside. “The new cities and their civil societies were known as places of personal freedom, as expressed in the old German slogan Stadluft macht frei (city air makes one free) and peace,” Palmer writes.

Furthermore, the freedom people enjoyed in cities led to great improvements in standards of human conduct because commercial success depended on having a reputation for fair dealing. Civil norms of respect for the rights of others, honesty, and politeness also developed. The behaviors we associate today with civil society are rooted in the soil of libertarianism that dates back a thousand years.

Palmer proceeds to explain the modern conception of libertarianism, likening it to a tripod. One leg is individual rights — rights that do not come from government, but precede it and can even be asserted against it. Those rights set the boundaries for the actions others, including rulers, may rightfully take against you.

The second leg is spontaneous order. Libertarian thinking recognizes that order emerges in society from the voluntary associations and agreements people enter into. Thus, there is no need for government officials to impose order by force.

Finally, there is limited government. Government has a role to play in society, but that role is limited to the defense of rights. Government must be tightly controlled lest it become a tool of plunder and tyranny.

Summing up, Palmer sets forth what should be a strongly appealing libertarian vision: “Social, scientific, and artistic progress, of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect among a myriad different ways of life and culture; of industry, commerce, and technology; of eradicating poverty and pushing back the frontiers of ignorance; of free, independent, and dignified individuals secure in the enjoyment of their rights.”

Slavery, humility, and the arts

James Padelioni’s essay links the spirit of libertarianism with the abolition of slavery. The greatest human-rights campaign in history was fueled by the libertarian belief that violations of the right to live in freedom cannot be tolerated. The fire that burned in abolitionists was libertarian fire. It animated not only the campaign against slavery, but also the campaigns against laws that denied equal rights to women and to Jews.

In all of that, the great weapons against oppression were nonpolitical and, of course, nonviolent. Libertarians used economic means to battle slavery, such as consumer boycotts of slave-produced sugar, and education to raise the moral vision of the mass of people so they would see the wrong in long-accepted practices of oppression. Glad we no longer have slavery and state-supported discriminations against groups of people? Thank libertarians.

Perhaps the essay most likely to open the eyes of younger people is Sarah Skwire’s “No Liberty, No Art: No Art, No Liberty.” In it she draws the connection between artistic freedom (which naturally rebellious teens and young adults understand to be important) and freedom in general. Surveying history from ancient times to modern, she gives examples where rulers used their power to punish poets, artists, and musicians who dared to criticize them. Stalin and Hitler both imprisoned and killed artists who dared to speak out against their regimes. More recently, Vladimir Putin’s Russian government had the punk band Pussy Riot sentenced to a penal colony for performing an anti-government song.

Art, Skwire argues, can also help to advance liberty. The Czech Republic’s “Velvet Revolution” was catalyzed by the government’s prosecution of a rock band. She quotes Czech leader Vaclav Havel, who said, “The freedom to play rock music was understood as the freedom to engage in philosophic and political reflection, the freedom to write, the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society.” Of the many reasons to fear the expansion of state power, the way it is used to attack the arts is one of the most compelling.

Aaron Ross Powell’s essay argues that libertarianism is a philosophy of humility. It is humble in admitting that all of us have limited knowledge, and in insisting that no one can be entrusted with the power to coerce others. Out of that humility grows respect for the dignity of each person and the willingness to allow each person to pursue his own quest in life.

But out of humility also grows, Powell writes, “a realistic view of how governments operate.” Here he introduces readers to Public Choice theory, which is the antidote to the fairy-dust notions about government that most Americans absorb in school. Instead of serving “the public interest,” as children are taught, politics usually does the opposite, helping those few who are the most vocal and politically important. Powell develops that point at length, and rightly so; the fact that government does far more to succor the well-connected than to aid the poor is the Achilles’ Heel of governmental legitimacy.

Showing that the yearning for liberty is universal, Nigerian Olumayowa Okedirans’s essay argues that African peoples could enjoy enormous gains in prosperity if most African intellectuals and rulers did not adhere to European socialistic thinking. Okedirans points out that Africans have long engaged in production and trade, just as Europeans and Asians have. “Profit and entrepreneurship,” he writes “were the backbone of trade empires such as the Mali Empire, the Ghana Empire, and the Songhai Empire…. The freely chosen activities of individuals — of farmers, blacksmiths, fishermen, market women [women who sell goods in the market], and professional merchants — were responsible for economic advancement; the anticipation of profit was the driving force behind those activities.”

Okedirans is especially adamant in denouncing the claim that socialism is the “authentic” model for African societies. It simply isn’t true, and serves only as an excuse for authoritarian and kleptocratic rulers to hold on to power. If they would stop interfering and allow their people to act freely, Africa would rapidly change from the continent we feel sorry for into a continent of rising prosperity.

Not long after the book was published, the disastrous rollout of Obamacare occurred. Advocates for that law repeatedly said that it was needed to solve the “crisis” afflicting our medical-care system. In her essay, “The Tangled Dynamics of State Interventionism: The Case of Health Care,” Sloane Frost brilliantly dismantles the tiresome notion that the problems we have in health care and health insurance stem from free markets and demand a federal solution. She demonstrates that those problems are entirely due to decades of government interference — a vast array of mandates and prohibitions and taxes and subsidies that replaced voluntary arrangements and prevented better systems from emerging.

Young Americans are both worried about health-care issues and confused about the nature of the “crisis.” Frost has made it all clear: government is the problem and liberty is the solution.

In his concluding essay, “The Origins of the State and Government,” Tom Palmer jousts with “progressives” who claim that government is responsible for everything good in society. Supposedly, in the absence of the state, people would live under frightful conditions of poverty and fear. But since government furnishes the framework for civilization, the wealth that people manage to accumulate actually belongs to it and hence rulers are entitled to take as much as they want in taxes.

Palmer demolishes that argument. First, the state did not originate in some kind of social contract, but rather as a predatory institution. It did not make production and trade possible; instead, it fastened itself in parasitic fashion on peaceful and productive societies through conquest. Originally “roving bandits,” the state gradually transformed itself into “stationary bandits.”

Many readers will be intrigued by Palmer’s point that throughout history, there have been regions of the world where there was no government, and yet the people developed the economic, social, and legal institutions necessary for prosperous, harmonious societies. That will come as a surprise because, he writes, “State systems of social control — from military conscription to compulsory schooling — have thoroughly permeated our consciousness.” Just so.

The great task before us — indeed the true “defining challenge of our time,” contrary to Obama — is to “free our minds from dependence on the state.” Anyone who reads this book will take a big step in that direction

This article was originally published in the June 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.

  • Categories
  • This post was written by:

    George C. Leef is the research director of the George C. Leef is the research director of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina. in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.